Art Doc of the Week | Billie Holiday: Sensational Lady

This BBC documentary complicates the myths and legends of Billie Holiday, showing she was much more than a victim.

Ernest Hardyby Ernest Hardy

Sensational Lady opens with a Billie Holiday performance clip, and she’s radiant. Full, healthy face perfectly made up; decked out in a glamorous gown and jewels; voice sublime. The narrator lets us know she was at the peak of her performing powers, but that within ten years of the performance she would be dead, “Her body wrecked by drink and drugs.”

In some ways this is a fake-out that preps the viewer for the expected narrative of a turbulent childhood (which included being raped and working in a brothel), abusive lovers, drug addiction, and harassment by cops even on her death bed. And all of that is covered with respect and candor. But the film also provides a richer, more vibrant life than that. It grants Holiday complexity and agency often denied her (even by her most stalwart fans) as she’s been turned into a metaphor for all the ways America beats Black people down. Sensational celebrates Holiday’s everyday resistance even as it outlines the oppressive contexts of poverty, violence and anti-Blackness in which she lived.

Billie Holiday circa 1952. Bob Willoughby, Redferns/Getty Images.

Billie Holiday circa 1952. Bob Willoughby, Redferns/Getty Images.

The 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues (great lead performance by Diana Ross; beyond shoddy on the actual facts of Holiday’s life) has helped warp public perception of the jazz icon, has fed into the grim mythology that swallowed her layered, complex reality when she died. (“Lady Sings the Blues,” Holiday’s 1956 autobiography that gave the film its title, also played fast and loose with the truth, as Sensational humorously explains.) Friends and fans (including cultural critic Stanley Crouch and the last master jazz critic Nat Hentoff) share anecdotes that are both hilarious and humanizing. And performance clips and rare photos flesh out the mystique and the artistry of Lady Day.

Billie Holiday, 1958. Associated Press

Billie Holiday, 1958. Associated Press

By the end of the film, with the portrait drawn being considerably removed from the simply-bleak life often recounted, we’re left to ask why has so much been invested in portraying her almost exclusively as defeated and downtrodden? Why aren’t the playful, tough, sexy, joyful aspects of her life elevated and celebrated more? Though some Holiday fans feel this particular documentary swings too far in that direction, downplaying the tragedy of her life too much, one thing it undoubtedly does is deepen our understanding of Holiday and her art, showing the multiple ways she and her music are the very definition of Black resistance.

Watch the film here.

Top photo courtesy William P. Gottlieb Collection